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Law Students Need to Make Informed Choices About Practice Areas

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Law students fall into two major groups when it comes to choosing significant or substantive areas of practice: those who have very definite ideas about their substantive preferences and those who do not.

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Students who do have strong preferences often come to law school with such attitudes already formed. They want to practice environmental law, labor law, patent law, criminal law, or some other specific field.

Those who are not so sure about their interest, frequently rank selection of a substantive area of practice below other considerations when they make career choices. These students are often quite flexible about the areas of practice they are willing to consider. Many assume that they can make choices about substantive fields after they leave law school and enter the real world.

Most law firms do not practice in just one field and most lawyers do not limit their practice to just one area. Even lawyers who practice in a discrete specialty often are called upon to deal with other areas of law as they intersect the practitioner's specialty. Unlike those who choose medicine, where a podiatrist may work only with feet or a cardiologist only with hearts, lawyers do not have the luxury of such narrow definition because legal problems seldom arrive in tidy substantive boxes. A client who comes to a lawyer for a will may also bring tax problems, property questions, family law issues, and a variety of other considerations.

Even the names given to substantive practice areas can be deceiving. International law may not mean that you look out of your office window onto the Champs Elysee as much as it means practicing corporate law for multi-national clients rather than domestic clients. Entertainment law may not mean hobnobbing with famous actors and actresses, but rather drafting contracts, leases, and other mundane documents.

Certainly, selection of substantive fields of practice is an important consideration not only in terms of your initial career planning, but also in terms of your long term career development. Various economic surveys conducted by bar associations have demonstrated that not all practice areas are equally prestigious, lucrative, or competitive. Neither are all areas equally demanding or stressful. Your earlier work in the area of skills analysis should help you to make decisions about substantive practice areas.

Unfortunately, many students make substantive choices for the wrong reasons. Sometimes students develop an interest in an area of practice because they like the professor who taught the course in law school. Their interest is triggered by the professor's enthusiasm, knowledge, and charisma rather than the actual work involved.

Some students simply fall into an area of practice. They clerk for a lawyer after the first year of law school and work on a few bankruptcy cases over the summer. Armed with this "expertise," they sell themselves to a subsequent employer on the basis of their experience in the bankruptcy field. When they accept a permanent job, they are (surprise!) assigned bankruptcy cases. Pretty soon they are the firm's bankruptcy lawyer. The only problem is that they absolutely hate bankruptcy law.

How do you make choices about substantive practice areas without pinning yourself down? How do you establish priorities about practice areas when you have no earthly idea what lawyers actually do in those areas?

Part of the answer to these questions is that you must simply explore different possibilities. Although you may not make a decision to specialize until you have practiced for several years, or you decide not to specialize at all, you can begin to educate yourself early in law school about various substantive options. While you are still in school, you can begin to narrow the alternatives you are willing to consider.

Since substantive practice areas are often defined by other factors such as geographic location, client needs and, organizational type, as you explore these other questions you will develop insights about a variety of substantive practice areas.

Read as much as you can about what lawyers in different substantive fields do. Talk to as many people as you can: lawyers, professors, classmates, and career service professionals. Explore different possibilities: take the clinical courses in law school, write papers, and look for law-related jobs in areas that interest you.

The technique of conducting information interviews can be particularly helpful in aiding you to form conclusions about what sort of practice interests you. Take notes on your impressions after reading or talking with someone. Try to identify specific skills of lawyers who practice in various specialties and compare these skills to your own. Try to narrow the field of possibilities as your base of knowledge increases.

As you proceed through the career choice and job search process add new fields and delete others. If it is possible, try to prioritize your list. This activity, over time, will help you to focus your attention without unduly restricting you.

For those of you who have already made substantive choices, here are a few suggestions. First, give some thought to your reasons for making this particular choice. As mentioned above, many students make choices of specialty for the wrong reasons. Even if you know you want to practice criminal law it may make sense to ask yourself in light of what you now know about skills analysis and career planning whether this is the best choice to make.

Second, if you do know what substantive area you want, do everything you can to develop credentials in that area. Take all the courses your law school has to offer. Write papers, gain experience, work for pay or as a volunteer, and find ways to demonstrate your commitment.

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Key Words to Describe Practice Areas
  • Administrative
  • Admiralty
  • Antitrust
  • Appellate
  • Arbitration
  • Aviation
  • Banking
  • Bankruptcy
  • Bond
  • Business
  • Children
  • Civil
  • Civil Rights
  • Commercial
  • Communications
  • Computer
  • Constitutional
  • Construction
  • Consumer
  • Contract
  • Corporate
  • Creditors Rights
  • Criminal
  • Defense
  • Disability
  • Discrimination
  • Domestic
  • Education
  • Elderly
  • Employee Benefits
  • Employment
  • Energy
  • Entertainment
  • Environmental
  • Estate
  • Family
  • Finance
  • Food and Drug
  • Fraud
  • Gender
  • Government
  • Health
  • Housing
  • Human Rights
  • Immigration
  • Indian
  • Insurance
  • Intellectual Property
  • International
  • Juvenile
  • Labor
  • Land Use
  • Legal Services
  • Legislation
  • Litigation
  • Malpractice
  • Medical
  • Mental Health
  • Military
  • Municipal
  • Oil and Gas
  • Patent
  • Personal Injury
  • Probate
  • Product Liability
  • Property
  • Prosecution
  • Public
  • Public Finance
  • Real Estate
  • Regulated Industries
  • Securities
  • Tax
  • Telecommunications
  • Tort
  • Toxic Tort
  • Trade
  • Trademark
  • Transactional
  • Trusts
  • Utilities
  • Welfare
  • White Collar Crime
  • Wills
  • Women
  • Zoning

Third, start now to develop a network. In one sense, making contacts along substantive lines is relatively easy. Bar associations are often divided according to substantive sections, continuing legal education programs generally have a substantive orientation, directories and law school courses are defined along substantive lines.

Even those who choose to be general practitioners have their own section in most bar organizations! Additionally, electronic database searches can be conducted using substantive variables. NALP line on Westlaw and Martindale-Hubbell on Lexis permit substantive searching. In short, if you are looking for lawyers who practice criminal law finding them should not be a problem. A Lexis or Westlaw search of cases in a substantive area will allow you to identify the attorneys of record, whom you can then track down.

While chances are you will probably end up as a specialist in one or two areas of law rather than as a Jack or Jill of all trades, use the time in law school to explore various substantive areas. Keep your options open, but begin to match your particular interests and skills with types of practice that can best use them.

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About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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